The Boy Scouts’ Futile Isolationism

No one should be especially surprised that the Boy Scouts of America recently announced they would maintain their policy of excluding gay people from membership. There’s little indication that they ever seriously considered revising their position that “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirement in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts”.

The BSA now claims that this policy has been under review for two years by a special committee, whose existence was never announced and whose composition is entirely unknown. They’ve stated that this mystery committee contained “a diversity of perspectives and opinions”, which apparently led them to conclude unanimously that the Boy Scouts should be for straight people only. And they’ve dismissed the significance of this issue with the flippant statement that “Scouting believes that good people can personally disagree on this topic and still work together to achieve the life-changing benefits to youth through Scouting”.

Legally speaking, the Boy Scouts are a private organization, and they’re fully within their rights to exclude whomever they choose for any reason at all, with no accountability to anyone. But we still have every right to expect them not to discriminate against people without good reason, just as we expect everyone else not to be racist, sexist or homophobic. Instead, the BSA has decided that the “life-changing benefits” of scouting should be denied to an entire segment of the population that they’ve deemed immoral, unclean, and poor role models. They have done this without even the barest explanation of why they believe this is so. Rather than pretending that there’s any sort of reason for this and hiding behind an unaccountable secret committee, it would have been more honest if they had simply told us, “Because screw you, that’s why.” That’s all it really boils down to when someone calls you immoral and refuses to say why.

Last month, the BSA offered a minimal justification for their current policy, saying:

Scouting believes same-sex attraction should be introduced and discussed outside of its program with parents, caregivers, or spiritual advisers, at the appropriate time and in the right setting. The vast majority of parents we serve value this right and do not sign their children up for Scouting for it to introduce or discuss, in any way, these topics.

Of course, this raises the question of whether opposite-sex attraction is a topic that the Boy Scouts program does discuss – and why same-sex attraction is so different that it must not only be left unaddressed, but literally banished. Does the presence of heterosexuals imply discussion of heterosexuality? If not, why is the mere presence of gay people considered synonymous with introducing and discussing homosexuality?

The notion that you can exclude the very idea of same-sex attraction just by banning anyone who possesses that attraction is pure fantasy anyway. Perhaps, like Anthony Esolen of Touchstone Magazine, they believe that any public awareness of homosexuality itself is corrosive to friendships between men, introducing the possibility of an element of attraction and making all close friendship suspect. Esolen’s solution, that being gay must once again be stigmatized to the point of being unthinkable, means requiring all gay people to live in secrecy, rather than expecting men who are friends to exhibit the maturity needed to recognize that homosexuality poses no threat to them. On an organizational scale, the BSA prefers the answer that’s most convenient to their prejudice.

But this is a genie that isn’t going back in the bottle. If the Boy Scouts don’t want to talk about sexuality, they certainly don’t have to, but removing so-called “known or avowed homosexuals” isn’t going to make anyone forget that they exist. This is the wrong answer to something that isn’t even a problem. And as a result of their moral laziness, families like mine have to explain to our sons why they can’t join the Scouts: because the BSA has decided that their parents just aren’t good people. The only thing life-changing about this is having to teach our 8-year-old how ugly the world can be.

The Boy Scouts’ Futile Isolationism

26 thoughts on “The Boy Scouts’ Futile Isolationism

    1. 1.1

      YES EXACTLY to that reference.

      This is ugly stuff. I wonder sometimes about what sort of culture the Boy Scouts instills. (Especially considering BecomingJulie’s comment.)

      1. I wonder sometimes about what sort of culture the Boy Scouts instills.

        Unless there have been some dramatic changes since the BSA kicked me out when I was 14? Nationalistic, militaristic, authoritarian, and patriarchal, with just a smattering of the most conservative wing of environmentalism (more conservationism than environmentalism at that).

      1. Clarification: Outside the USA, “republican” just means “opponent of monarchy” but is often associated with beliefs in social justice, progress, equality, redistribution of wealth &c. Pretty much the opposite of what it means in the USA.

  1. 3

    If you were a heterosexual individual who had a long-time friend of the same gender, and find out that this friend has struggled with their homosexuality for a long time before finally coming out and, on top of that, expressing interest in you, would you think:

    “Oh crap… wow, I really like this person, but not in that way. Our friendship has been wonderful and I really want to continue being friends, but if I reject their advancement, do I risk hurting our friendship? Or do I try to see things from there perspective and maybe go out on a few dates? Who knows, it might be fun… but then again, maybe that would be stringing them on or outright lying. Maybe I should try to meet them half way, or at least talk to them about this. But even talking to them might hurt them! Argh! I don’t know what to do!”

    Or, do you think:

    “Ew, that’s gross. I don’t want to be friends any more.”

    At the risk of being fallacious (if I haven’t already excluded a middle…), something tells me that if you would think the latter instead of the former, you two never had a real friendship.

    1. 3.2

      something tells me

      Imaginary friend? Voice in your head? Faerie from the bottom of the garden?

      Or do you just mean “That is totally what I would do!” and are trying to project your squick onto the rest of us?

      1. Huh? I don’t think you and Salmo reading their comment right. The Lorax is saying if a straight person is squicked instead of sympathetic, they weren’t a good friend for the gay person in the first place.

        The first description–the discomfort, with the consideration and confused thinking–is quite common, I think, for young people in areas/subcultures with little exposure to gay people.

  2. 4


    Of course, your son(s) can join the Scouts. I assume that you and your partner have chosen not to sign him (or them) up, which I don’t fault you for. That’s your choice.

    As an atheist, I also had misgivings about allowing my son to join an organization that considers me immoral and bars my participation, but I let him become a Tiger Cub anyway because he wanted to and he’s a good kid. I couldn’t see punishing him because of who I am. I actually became quite active in Scouts and was never questioned about my beliefs even though there was a fair amount of gossip about me being an atheist. I suppose not bowing my head during prayers got someone’s suspicions up. Perhaps I contributed enough to making the Pack and, later, Troop a success that no one wanted to ask the question, afraid of what the answer would be. I certainly never mentioned my atheism, so it was never an issue.

    Was this moral cowardice on my part? Perhaps. I view it as just one more small sacrifice I made for my son, one that he benefitted greatly from. He’s had some great adventures with the Scouts and is disciplined, polite and hardworking. He just finished his requirements for the rank of Eagle and is about to move across the country to a top-notch university. I think Scouting played a significant role in shaping him and have no regrets about his participation in it.

    1. 4.1

      Are you sure? Wouldn’t mentioning his two female parents amount to “discussing same-sex attraction”? Even if the official policies don’t say this outright, it’s quite likely that someone in the Boy Scouts has told Zinnia and Heather their child can’t come. And if that happened, then there would still have to be a fight and it would still be ugly.

      I’m curious to know what actually happened.

      1. Am I sure? No. I can’t know what the local bigots might say. I do know that the national bigots bar homosexuals and avowed atheists (unless, oddly, they are Buddhists) from membership as Scouts or Scouters (adult leaders, committee members, etc.) BSA at the national level doesn’t bar children for their parents “sins” and expects compliance with their policies at the local level.

        1. Some local scout leaders do not enforce national BSA policies but the policies are there and sometimes the national BSA has cracked down on dissident local leaders.

          In 1973 I wrote a letter to national BSA headquarters protesting the expulsion of a 10-year-old cub scout because he did not believe in God. The reply I got was that the local cub pack was simply carrying out national policy.

          I regard this stuff as barbaric, and we should remember that scouting professes to instill moral values.

          I became an eagle scout when I was thirteen and still a believer. When I started reading the Bible and examining my beliefs I reached the only intelligent conclusion and thereby became morally unfit to be a member of the Boy Scouts of America.

    2. 4.2

      I suppose it depends on the pack/troop the kid is in.

      The pack my son was in bent over backwards to convince me to keep bringing him back when I decided to stop bringing him – to the point of paying for his dues for a year. I was uncomfortable with it but stayed with it because my son told me he wanted to go.
      Then they found out (through his mother) that I’m an atheist. Suddenly I was being told that my son just ‘wasn’t enjoying’ scouts, and that maybe everyone would be happier if just stopped bringing him.

      It turned out that the only reason he was still going was because he thought I wanted him to go, and I was only bringing him because I thought HE wanted to go. So it worked out. But I’ll never forget just how much their ‘Christian’ behavior towards us hinged on their belief that I shared their religion.

  3. 5

    I bring a bit of a different perspective to scouting, I was a scout in Denmark for more than two decades. I happened to be a member of the YMCA scouts, so Christian, but in Denmark there is also another scouting organisation that is not affiliated with any religious group. I think they have a clause in their founding documents about letting children meet a variety of spiritual beliefs, but they do not subscribe to any particular religion or church philosophy. So, in short, you can be an atheist in that organization. That is an organization that is a member of WOSM, the same international organization that the BSA derive their scouting status from. In other words, this is a US problem, not a problem inherent in the scouting movement. And I think it may be country specific that you cannot be a boyscout in the US unless you are an BSA member, when other countries can have a number of scouting organizations.

    I have worked for a BSA camp in Minnesota and while everyone knows the National BSA policy, no one takes it seriously and I know that gays where employed and received fair and equal treatment from leadership (some were leadership). As my own kids are getting older, my husband and I have debated the issue. Despite our fabulous experiences with scouting, could we be involved in an organisation with this type of policy? I feel strongly that that would be immoral.

    And then my husband emails me this article from the Star Tribune: According to the article, the Council covering Minnesota and parts of the Dakotas is saying they do not and do not intend to abide by the national policy. And apparently the national organization is not going to fight them. Maybe a case of working for change from the inside?

    The understanding of the problem that I hear from inside the BSA is that the Mormons are a disproportionately large part of membership, and so because of the funding they provide, everyone has to play by their book. Apparently all mormon boys have to be members of the troop at their church. I don’t know if this is true, but it does make a compelling narrative. And it would seem to say that the problem can only be solved by changing the proportions of membership?

    As someone who believes strongly in the values of scouting: helping children become independent adults who are confident in taking responsibility for their own lives and living to their fullest and for being contributing members of their communities, I want to believe in this change.

    1. Erp

      I believe the WOSM policy is only one Scouting organization per country is recognized by the WOSM. Countries with more than one organization have a national federation of the several organizations and it is that federation that is recognized by the WOSM. There are also independent scouting organizations not part of WOSM (or WAGGGS the equivalent for Girl Scouts/Girl Guides). National Scouting organizations may have troops in other countries but they cater to their own citizens (e.g., BSA troops in US military bases abroad) and sometimes other non-citizens of the country they are in (e.g., the Canadian embassy in the US has a scout troop under Scouts Canada which is open to non-US citizens only).

  4. 6

    I don’t know how I made it to within a few merit badges of being an Eagle Scout. I’ve been a very “question authority” type since I was about 13 or 14, around the same time I realized belief in an unseen god was ridiculous. Of course, a lot of my buddies when I was in scouts were rather like-minded. Also, I was asked to leave a meeting after I sarcastically mouthed-off to the assistant scoutmaster.

  5. 7

    One thing I’m curious about;

    When I was in Scouts Canada, my scout unit was hosted by the local Anglican church. We used their church basement and played a ceremonial role at Easter and Lent with the pancake supper, but within the troop itself, god was relegated more to ceremonial deism (much the way the Queen was constantly referred to in ceremonial monarchism)

    I wonder, how many church basements would the American Boy Scout troops have been kicked out of, had they accepted gay members?

    1. 7.1

      I don’t know if this holds true for all BSA troops but when I was in it we met (and I believe they still do) in public schools, which is one of the reasons people are continuously trying to sue them since they are afforded privileges that aren’t available to other groups while still being allowed to discriminate.

  6. 8

    I’m not a regular reader at this blog, but your headline caught my eye. I wanted to add a bit about Scouts Canada: it has been open to queer participants for some time now, and I believe that is part of the reason for the split from BSA. Their site states “Scouts Canada does not discriminate for reasons of gender, culture, religious belief or sexual orientation.”

    Unfortunately, it also states that, although you do not need to be formally religious, “you must have a basic spiritual belief. Spirituality has been one of the three main principles of Scouting around the world since its inception more than 100 years ago. Scouts Canada is proud of its commitment to diversity and welcomes members of many different faiths and denominations.” So, although I’m glad they don’t discriminate against as many people as BSA, my kid still won’t be joining.

  7. 9

    Shew. I’d lost track of the BSA part of my life until now. I’m glad you posted this blog and I agree with your views.
    I joined as a 10 year old and left it 8 years later with two catholic scouting awards: Ad Altare Dei, the Pope Pius XII(if only I knew of his anti-semitism)and the rank of Eagle Scout. All this preceded my questioning of the existence of god and my own Queerdom. I was so, so very naive about the paternalistic, religious-minded military ethos of the scouting movement- we never discussed it and I didn’t think to question it. Reading back the oaths, pledges and language of the handbook makes me gasp now.
    I made made friends and have great memories from scouting- especially the camping(!)and outdoors activities and I learned the value of setting goals and self-discipline though all of these could have been learnt by groups that don’t inculcate religiosity or reinforce militaristic uniformity.
    One thing I can say was absent from my scouting experience was the over-arching motivation from leadership towards learning how to think critically. How to organise, follow rules and ‘do’ things, yes. But not how to question, challenge doctrines and dogmas or examine life ethically without a religious filter. There is no merit badge for Critical Thinking or Logic, much less Philosophy or Humanism to my knowledge.
    I wouldn’t encourage my son to join as it is today and would explain to him the many issues I have with such and organisation.

  8. JP

    Just an idle thought– I saw @weldonribeye’s reference to Buddhist atheists in BSA, and I wonder whether Unitarian or Quaker atheists are similarly tolerated?

    Not that it matters, really; just curious…

  9. 11

    I made it all the way to Eagle without really discovering any of the issues that BSA was having with gays or atheists, even while anyone who asked me knew I was an atheist. I think the experience really comes down to the Troop, mine met in a park meetinghouse rather than a church basement and never really cared if the boys got religious awards. We were known as the local troop that could handle disabled scouts and scouts with behavioral difficulties, and were still a fairly disciplined and active group. Some of my favorite leaders and peers actually taught me some great moral lessons that you might not expect from BSA such as the value of questioning authority. Troops like that will always be around, I only hope that if I have a son that wants to try scouting that I can find one.

  10. 13

    The US military provides support for the National Jamboree.

    An LGBT person can be ordered to support the Jamboree, and it would be illegal for them to refuse. There is potential prison time attached to refusing an order. If you’re lucky you might have an understanding CO that will give you other duties for the Jamboree, or let you take your alloted leave then, but that’s far from guaranteed. “Hey, private, you’re gay, so I’m going to order you to support an antigay organization”. WHAT THE FUCK.

    If the BSA wants to run a discriminatory program, ok, fine. But they should get no special benefits from the government. No discounts, no special access. They pay just as much, and have just as much access, as Westboro Baptist, or the Roman Catholic Church, or the Secular Students of America. No special benefits.

    Also, any military mission to support a BSA program should be volunteer only, on top of the BSA paying every penny of the budget.

    Or they can open up, and I’d be ok with them getting some special privileges. Apart from the issues with homosexuality and atheism, the BSA has a great program with great values. Our nation would be better off if more kids were exposed to those values. But the bigotry they are tied together with in the BSA taints the entire program and the potential it has.

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